Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Read in 2018 - 1: Elmet

by Fiona Mozley

This was a Christmas present from my sister, who often despairs at my bad reading habits and tries to make sure I read a good book at least every now and then. This one certainly fits her requirements.

Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Daniel, the story is about a family on the fringe of society: John, a giant of a man and gentle father who makes his living mostly from illegal fights, moves with his children Daniel and Cathy to a small copse where he builds them a house with his own hands.
For one year, the three of them live there almost unbothered by human society, entirely satisfied with their own company, living off what their vegetable patch and chicken coop yield, hunting with bow and arrow for small animals in the copse and picking berries in the hedgerows.

Every now and then, Daniel tells the reader of their life before they moved to the copse. The children went to school (never really fitting in) and were cared for by their Grandma, with their father often being away, sometimes for days or weeks on end.
It takes until chapter 8 before the reader learns anything about their mother. Daniel never really knew what was the matter with her, and describes things from his perspective as a child, but she was never around for long before she disappeared again until one day a phone call informs them that she won't be coming back.

The copse and the house are not officially owned by the family, and it is only a question of time until the landowner turns up and suggests a way to settle things between them. 

The drama unfolds slowly, but the reader can see how it all leads to an inevitably terrible end. When that terrible end is finally there in the last chapter, it makes for hard reading - at least it did for me. Things turn brutal, but are still told in Daniel's style; he is matter-of-fact with an eye for poetic detail even in the most horrible scene. The final outcome is not made entirely clear; the reader doesn't know for sure whether Daniel is the lone surviving member of his family or not.

The setting of the book is rural Yorkshire, with farming and former mining villages dotting the countryside around the copse. I loved the descriptions of the woods and fields, and of the self-contained daily life of the unusual family. Like I said, the last chapter was tough, but not surprising, so I was mentally prepared for it.

Definitely a book I recommend; my sister has not yet read it, and I hope she will enjoy it, too. In parts, it reminded me of Claire Fuller's "Our Endless Numbered Days", which I read last year; you can find my review here. Both books centre around characters who live apart from "the rest of us", so to speak; either by choice or because they were made to. Both books have a young person as their narrator, and there is death and tragedy in them as well; they are both written in a language that is unpretentious and capturing.

"Elmet" is Fiona Mozley's first novel. Her home page is here; it contains a mini bio.  Click here for a more thorough review I found on the Guardian's website.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Questions About 2017

Yes, I know - 2017 is gone, dead and buried. 2018 is already 8 days "old". But I am still thinking about the past 12 months, and I guess I am not entirely alone in that. Of course, I am also looking ahead, not just back, but let me focus on 2017 just for a few more minutes.

We spent New Year's Eve at my sister's, a small party of six. It was a nice evening, quiet and lively at the same time. I had prepared a game for us all to play, based on something I had been reading the day before in my weekly paper: Several more or less well-known people from different walks of life were asked the same questions about 2017. I adapted these a bit and made a card game of it, where we asked each others those questions in turn. It meant not all of us got to answer each question, but I thought about what my answers would be while I was preparing the game.

Here they are:

1. What did you do for the first time in 2017?
Oh, many things! For instance, I was present at the setting up of a maypole for the first time. Also, I visited Zurich for the first time, and had a very posh afternoon tea with all the traditional parts for the first time. (These and several other "firsts" featured on my blog.) Some food and drink I also tasted for the first time.

2. Was 2017 better or worse than what you expected?
Both. It was much, much better in terms of work, but worse under some aspects to do with my health.

3. Who or what was "hope" for you in 2017?
That's a tough one. I rarely expect something from others, but more from myself. I did have some hopes regarding our government to DO SOMETHING about certain things going wrong in this country, but I won't go into detail on my blog when it comes to politics.

4. Who or what was disappointing in 2017?
See # 3 - those things did not come about. And I was disappointed with myself more than once. Also, it was somewhat disappointing that we did not manage a proper family gathering in Yorkshire the way we had done in previous years, and that Aunt J and Uncle B were away and we could not spend time with them as we had done before.

5. Your personal success in 2017?
I won a customer I'd been after (so to speak) for almost two years.

6. Your personal failure in 2017?
Mostly to do with running. Don't ask. Work-wise, I did not manage to make three people who were assigned to a project of mine (not by my choice) do what they were supposed to be doing, when they were supposed to be doing it. The nice approach didn't work.

7. What were you most happy about in 2017?
Another difficult one - there were so many happy moments and beautiful times in 2017! I went on three lovely holidays, saw wonderful places and met the nicest people. Again, a lot of it featured on my blog.

8. What made you most angry in 2017?
Maybe not most angry, but I often was angry about the inability of our rail services (both local and long distance) to provide what I paid for - a trip from A to B in time with the schedule THEY had set up.

9. What was the biggest surprise for you in 2017?
That Ripon introduced its first female Hornblower in the more than 1,000 year old tradition! :-)

10. What news in 2017 could you have done without?
Oh, nearly all of the ones that I saw daily on the main news on TV - too much bad stuff going on everywhere, all the time.

- - -

There were several more questions in the paper, but I think ten are enough. I wonder how my answers will differ after the next 12 months!
(If you feel like answering all or some of them in your comments, or use them on your own blogs, please feel free!)

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Between Christmas and New Year

View from my office window on 12.12.

The few days between Christmas and New Year usually find me in a strange mood, and this year is no exception. I am happy - Christmas was beautiful, with each of the three days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day) having its own character and activies; I do not have to work (and I really can do with some rest, much as I like my job), and everything is right in my little world. But I am also a bit sad to let go; similar to the way I feel when summer comes to an end and the leaves start to turn.

Our Christmas tree (at my parents'), with REAL candles, of course

The new red dress I bought earlier this month to wear on Christmas Eve
Singing Christmas carols at my parents' on Christmas Eve

Anyway, there is plenty to look forward to! Apart from not having to work until January 8th, there will be New Year's Eve to celebrate (the decision as to who will host the party this year has not yet been made), New Year's Day at O.K.'s parents, then a whole week off together. January also sees my sister's and my Dad's birthday, plus there will be a start-of-the-year celebration dinner with my boss (still the same RJ) and colleagues at a restaurant during our first week back at work.

Yesterday, I spent a very lazy day. No household work with the exception of doing some washing and of course making myself something to eat and washing up afterwards. I spoke to my Yorkshire family on the phone, which was very nice. Other than that, I spent the day reading, playing my favourite computer game, watching TV and relaxing. I ate up all the remaining Christmas cookies my Mum had made, looked at my beautiful presents and cards and thought of all the lovely people in my life who gave or sent them to me.
Not once did I step out of doors.

Can you detect the general theme? :-)

Today will be a bit different. I have no fresh food left in my fridge and need to do something about that. Also, there is ironing to do, maybe a walk to my parents' later, and/or a long overdue visit to the gym. But I'll do it all at my own leisurely pace; today and tomorrow, the emphasis is still on relaxing. I was very busy the last half year, working more and harder than I'd done in some years, and it is catching up with me now; my body tells me to REST, which is exactly what I'm doing.

On the weekend, O.K. will be here (he has to work this week) so that we can celebrate New Year's Eve together. It will be fun, and I am going to wear the beautiful new earrings he gave me for Christmas - they match my silk shirt perfectly, don't you think? They are made of Murano glass and to me look like tiny worlds with golden continents on light blue oceans.

I hope all of you have had a lovely Christmas and will bring in the New Year just the way you like - either with a big party or quietly -, and that 2018 has only good things in store for you and your loved ones.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Read in 2017 - 43: A Death at Fountains Abbey

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while all know that Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire is one of my favourite places in the world, and it features on my blog every year.
Therefore, you can imagine my sister's and my reaction when we were walking past the shop window of "The Little Ripon Bookshop" in the summer and saw this book in the window:

A Death at Fountains Abbey
by Antonia Hodgson

My sister bought it, and after she had read it, she lent it to me. I've had it on my to-be-read pile for many weeks before I finally got round to reading it, and it took me much longer than it should to finish it, mainly because most nights after work I was too tired and my eye sight too bad to do much (or any) reading.

The story is a combination of fact and fiction, and the author kindly has added a chapter at the end of the book where she tells the reader who of her characters and which of the events were real.

In the early 1700, John Aislabie was mainly responsible for a huge financial swindle, involving the highest levels of government, even the Queen and her family. Aislabie somehow managed not to be convicted to death or deportation, merely to be banned from all offices (he was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the big South Sea Bubble) and forced to live out the rest of his life in luxury on his large estate, Studley Royal, near Ripon in Yorkshire.

Those are the historical facts. Antonia Hodgson now adds Thomas Hawkins, a rogueish investigator in the services of the Queen, the hero of two earlier works of historical crime fiction. I'd known neither the author nor her Thomas-Hawkings-series before, and although in this book, it is often alluded to the previous stories, it can very well be read as standalone.

Hawkins is sent to Yorkshire, apparently to "help" Aislabie, but actually he (or, rather, the Queen who sent him) has a hidden agenda. With him are his girlfriend (presented to the high society at Studley as his wife) and his 14-year-old "brother", who is actually a member of one of London's most feared criminal clans.

The beautiful setting of Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey is the backdrop for some hideous crimes. Of course, Hawkins and his loved ones not only get into trouble, but serious danger. Some of the guests staying at Studley are not who or what they seem to be, and how much do John Aislabie and his wife really know?

To make matters more interesting, a young widow appears on the scene, pretending to be John's long-lost daughter... This part of the story really leaves the reader (= me) wondering for a long time.

I really enjoyed this book, and of course had no trouble picturing the scenes. Admittedly, though, I enjoyed it for its settings and not for Thomas Hawkins et al; I couldn't bring myself to like them much or care about what happened to them, and won't go looking for the rest of the series (which is not set in or around Fountains Abbey).
Oh, and it has map! I love books with maps :-) 

Antonia Hodgson writes the way I like it - offering detail where needed, but not over-indulging when it is not necessary for the story to develop. She does use some vulgar language where her characters speak or think that way, and if you do not care for the f-word in your books, then don't read this.
The author's website is here.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Read in 2017 - 42: Miss Kane's Christmas

Miss Kane's Christmas
by Caroline Mickelson

With this novella (meaning shorter than a novel, but longer than a short story), you get exactly what you expect by looking at the cover:
A light, entertaining read, just right for the last few days before Christmas for those train rides to and from work.

Carol Kane Claus is Santa's daughter - and she's on a mission: Her father wants her to give two children a very special Christmas. The kids' mother died of cancer, and their father wants to spare them more grief by making Christmas a totally everyday thing - no ornaments, no singing, no candles, and definitely NO SANTA. Because he "knows" Santa does not exist, and thinks it wrong to tell his children otherwise, which would inevitably lead to disappointment once they found out the truth.

What happens next is of course totally foreseeable, and therefore not necessary to mention; but still, the outcome is not a merry Christmas for the small family (or for Carol). Instead, things first seem to go in the wrong direction until the u-turn happens, and in the end, all's well that ends well.

I did like Carol and the other people in the book, because even with such a short book, the author managed to portray each character so that I was able to picture them in my mind. Some of the quirky ideas about how Santa and his family manage Christmas were rather funny. Editing was good - always a welcome surprise with a free ebook.

The author was unknown to me.  Her website is here if you want to know more.

It was not my last seasonal read of this year, but the last one I finished just before Christmas.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Guest Post By My Mum: A Secret Christmas Miracle

Can you believe my Mum has not written any guest post on my blog since last year?! I found it hard to believe myself, and yet this one from December 2016 was her last.
Time for a new one, I think!

And here goes:

A Secret Christmas Miracle
Not far from my home are fields, meadows and gardens, like allotments, and many  fruit trees and shrubs. Of course now, in wintertime, they are all leafless. And since a few years, on two of those trees, over night appear a lot of christmas baubles in different colours. 

It looks beautiful, especially when sunlight is shining on and reflecting off them. Because it is so unexpected, everybody walking by stops for a rest, and I think that is the intention of this miracle secret action.
Recently there was an article in our daily newspaper, saying that nobody knows who keeps doing this. Nobody has seen the baubles being put up, it must happen over night. And after Christmas, also over night, the ornaments vanish until the next year, next Christmas time.
Thanks to the person who brings a little more joy to the world. 

In this spirit I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. 

- - - End of guest post - - -

Yes, I've showed you these pictures before, but trust me, the trees look pretty much the same this year with even the weather being similar; too mild for Christmas, so we're in for a grey-brown-green Christmas instead of a white one.

I can't say I'm sorry about this; much as I like looking at Winter Wonderland from my kitchen window, I prefer the rail tracks snow-free when I am travelling, which I will be doing on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (to and from O.K.'s, you guessed it).

The trees with the baubles were a real surprise when my Mum and I came across them for the first time some years ago. We always assumed the folks from the nearby kindergarden or elementary school or church community were behind it, and so we were amazed to learn from the newspaper that in fact it is a secret as to who is responsible for this unexpected beauty on the fields.
(There, Kay, you know what I mean!)

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Read in 2017 - 39, 40, 41

This is a three-in-one post with reviews of the last books I have read - I am so behind, and therefore, they are much shorter than what you are used to from my reviews.

# 39: Death Comes To Town
by K. J. Emrick

This mystery was a relatively quick read - and, admittedly, quickly forgotten.

The plot? Young woman with supernatural abilities (she can "sense things", talks to her cat - who doesn't? - and sees her late Aunt Millie every now and then) plays detective when her neighbour is killed.

Throw in a love interest (which, as is so often the case in books like this, starts out as a real twerp, detested by our heroine at first sight), a cast of rather one-dimensional characters populating the small town of Misty Hollow, some frightening epxeriences for our heroine, and you have a book.

Not one I consider a total waste of time; don't get me wrong, my review probably comes across more negative than I felt about this story. But it is definitely not something I recommend, unless you really, really like Nora Roberts and similar.

When I downloaded the book two years or so ago, I didn't know it had the supernatural element. I do like mysteries, and every now and then - very rarely! - I also like a dash of fantasy and/or ghost story.

Maybe I wasn't in the right mood this time; maybe I found the switch from hate to love a bit too sudden (and not very credible), but I simply could not bring myself to care for the heroine or for anyone else in the book.

It helped pass the time on my train trips to and from work, but that's about it.

- - - -

# 40: Flight 308 to Christmas
by Nancy Isaak

I've always liked seasonal reading, but this year, I started really late with any Christmas-related books. This one was short and sweet - not too short; the characters gain enough depth to make the reader sympathise with them.

Connie is an 11-year-old girl who has come to live with her aunt after her parents died in a car crash. Just when she starts getting used to this new stage in her life, her aunt is diagnosed with cancer and needs to start treatment in hospital.

For the time being, she can not look after her young niece, and so the only other living relative has to step in: Connie is going to live with her grandfather - a man she has never met.

All she knows is that the elderly man is in a wheel chair and lives at the other side of the Rocky Mountains, hundreds of miles from her aunt's home.

To make matters even more difficult, Connie has to fly there on Christmas Eve - alone with a pilot in a small plane, facing a snow storm across the Rockies.

And everybody seems to think she should believe in Santa, only because she is not an adult! But Connie does not believe in Santa. After all, she never got what she wanted for Christmas. And besides, she is not a baby anymore, is she!

As the small plane makes its way across the Rockies, thrown about by the snow storm, things begin to happen that change Connie's life forever.

A charming read; predictable, yes, but heart-warming and just the right thing for a long train ride home on a dark Sunday night in December.

- - - -

# 41: Let's Do Christmas
by Cynthia Lee Cartier

My 2nd seasonal read of this year's pre-Christmas period was longer than "Flight 308" but almost as predictable:

Grumpy family members who really do not want to celebrate Christmas together are forced to stay longer than planned when they are snowed in.

As expected, this extreme situation brings out the best - and worst - in them; eventually, the grumps make a 180-degree turn and the spirit of Christmas prevails.

I found this one rather amusing, because the characters are so cliché-laden that you can not possibly take them serious.

The underlying currents and tensions between siblings and parents, in-laws and grandchildren are something many people may be able to relate to, as I don't think there is any one family in the whole world that does not have its reasons for holding grudges - or for forgiving past sins.

Nothing magical or super-natural happens in this story, and although it ends well, it somehow manages to avoid too much sweetness and is not as cheesy as it may sound.

PS: I have just realised I've read this before, in 2015! My old review is here, if you are interested. No wonder it seemed so familiar :-D

- - - -

All of these have something in common: They were free ebooks on Amazon's kindle shop; I had not heard of the authors before, and I downloaded the books years ago when my kindle was brand new and I went on a downloading spree.